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Indian chefs should keep it authentic and real

Like all other Indian foodies I am delighted by the news that Michelin has awarded stars to three Indian restaurants in America.

Frankly, the choice of the restaurants is not any kind of surprise. Indienne in Chicago, with a manager taken from Alinea, the city’s top restaurant and a top notch American serving staff had long been expected to get a star.


Semma, the hit New York restaurant that is part of Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya’s Unapologetic Foods group, already had a star and merely retained it this year.


   Washington DC’s Rania is both new and not so new. It used to be an excellent restaurant called Punjab Grill (which I wrote about here when it opened). It closed, like so many other places, during the Pandemic and has now been relaunched under a new name and with a new chef. I always thought the original Punjab Grill would get a Michelin star — which it might well have if the Pandemic had not intervened.


   Do these stars represent a breakthrough? Has Indian food finally made it in America?


   I’m not so sure. Contrary to what we may think, there have always been celebrated Indian chefs in America. Way back in the 1990s, Danny Meyer the king of New York’s restaurant scene opened Tabla with the late great Floyd Cardoz as chef (and Will Guidara, later to find fame at Eleven Madison Park as the manager). The restaurant was a critical success because Floyd combined his mastery of French techniques with his understanding of Indian flavours. Downstairs, in what should have been the bar area, Meyer and Cardoz opened the Bread Bar doing simple but innovative Indian food, which may have been the blueprint for Cardoz’s later ventures including The Bombay Canteen.


   Tabla did not get a Michelin star mainly because there was no Michelin guide to New York until 2006 but it is fair to say that Floyd was taken extremely seriously by New York’s food establishment, a respect that was never equalled till Chintan Pandya burst on the scene a few years ago.


   When Michelin did eventually arrive in New York, it gave a star to Devi, run by Suvir Saran. Over time other Indian restaurants won stars, among them Junoon where Vikas Khanna was the chef. But Michelin is not the most important judge of food quality in New York. That distinction belongs to the New York Times whose reviews can make or break a restaurant.


   Over the last few years, the Times has loved the restaurants set up by Unapologetic Foods, the company run by Mazumdar and Pandya. Their Dhamaka is one of New York’s hottest, impossible-to-book restaurants. Semma is part of the same group though the food is down to the Chef Vijayakumar.


   When Semma got its first star last year, all of New York sat up. At Dhamaka, Pandya had broken all the rules of upmarket Indian dining by making no compromises to western tastes or sensibilities in terms of either food or presentation. Dark, steaming, spicy dishes came to the table in the vessels in which they had been cooked. There was no poncing around with pretty plates and no attempt to Americanise the food.


  "Indienne was a labour of love. As Sarkar tells it, he set out to create a world class restaurant, selecting staff with experience at the best Chicago restaurants."

   Semma follows that tradition. It’s the kind of South Indian food you might find in a mess in Chennai or Madurai and the chilli content may even be higher than in Chennai. Mazumdar and Pandya encouraged Vijayakumar to move away from the standard South Indian menu of most upmarket restaurants and to put the dishes his mother had cooked back in his village on the menu. Now, even Indian guests find some of the dishes unfamiliar and some complain that the food is very hot.


   Vijayakumar doesn’t mind. Why should he? When it opened, the New York press gave Semma rave reviews. And it is now so hard to score a table at Semma that a month ago the New York Times even ran a story on the impossibility of getting into Semma.


   Vijayakumar says he was not expecting the star last year though he thought Semma would hold on to it this year because they had worked hard to make the food better.


   It does say something about how far Michelin has come from its French origins that it ignored the many Frenchified Indian restaurants in New York and honoured a place that served the same sort of food that it would have served even if it was located in Chennai. The myth that you have to change your food to appeal to the Michelin inspectors is now dead.


   Indienne in Chicago, another of this year’s winners, is a different case. Sujan Sarkar is one of India’s most respected chefs and has trained many of today’s star chefs. Sarkar’s background and training are in European cuisine and he found great success at Olive.


   But he wanted to be more adventurous. His excellent Rooh in Delhi never found the success it deserved. (“I wasted so much money and so much time”, he says) so he focussed on expanding in America. The Rooh formula worked brilliantly in California and today Sarkar, who created his own kind of modern Indian food, has several successful restaurants all over America.


   Indienne was a labour of love. As Sarkar tells it, he set out to create a world class restaurant, selecting staff with experience at the best Chicago restaurants. Though the restaurant is large (90 covers), he insisted that he would serve only tasting menus and dispensed with an a la carte section.


   When Indienne was a hit from the day it opened, Sarkar sat back and waited for the Michelin star. It might have sounded presumptuous but he had been around in the restaurant business long enough to know when something worked and when it didn’t. This time he was confident that a star would come the restaurant’s way. As we know he has been proved right.


   But Michelin can also move in strange ways. When Rania was Punjab Grill, it had a very gifted chef in Jas Bindra. The Pandemic intervened and Bindra moved on. The restaurant became Rania and it hired Chetan Shetty who had been chef at the New York Indian Accent. (He is one of Manish Mehrotra’s protégés, having started out as a trainee at the original Indian Accent in Delhi’s Manor Hotel.) Each year, Michelin continues to overlook the New York Indian Accent while Indian Accent chefs go on to work at restaurants which win stars.


   The best example is Dubai’s Tresind Studio which has two Michelin stars and is run by Himanshu Saini, probably the most brilliant of Manish’s Indian Accent protégés. But while the extended Indian Accent family catches Michelin’s eye, the New York restaurant is ignored.


   Is there a trend in all of this? I am not sure. They are all very different restaurants. Yes, the success of Semma and the Unapologetic Foods stable of restaurants demonstrates that Indian chefs should keep it authentic and real. Sujan Sarkar’s success tells us that chefs who run restaurants in India can easily succeed abroad. Their skills are translatable across geographies.


   But beyond that, I am hard pressed to find a trend in this new bunch of stars. May be it just proves that the US restaurant scene is vast enough for everyone to do their own thing; there is no formula for success in the US.


   If you go to America with talent and are prepared to work hard, the USA (and Michelin too!) will find ways of rewarding you.



Posted On: 17 Nov 2023 10:30 AM
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